Compound Exercises Vs. Isolation Exercises

Jun 8, 2018 mindpump

The gym is a scary, intimidating place. Huge dudes grunting. That girl you follow on Insta doing some kind of banded hop thing. Seriously, what is she doing?

All this makes going to the gym hard enough in itself. You gravitate towards the machines, cables, and bicep curls. They’re comfortable, and pretty self explanatory.

Problem is, sticking to comfortable movements is far from an effective training strategy.

Let break things down into two types of exercises:

Isolation exercises: Primarily work a single muscle group. Think: Bicep curls, shoulder flys, most machines. You really feel a single muscle group burning. Not that tiring.

Compound Exercises: Work lots of muscle groups at once. Think: Squats, lunges, chin-ups, deadlifts. Lots of things burn. These are exhausting. Harder to motivate yourself to do.

To build a lean, toned or muscular physique, you need to focus on compound exercises.

They’re more effective. Let’s compare:

  1. A) three sets per week of leg extensions, a classic go to for those who aren’t really sure where to go in the gym. Isolate the quads for the most part. Burners for sure.
  2. B) barbell back squat. Also work your quads. As well as: booty, hamstrings, back, core.

So a lot more “bang for your buck” doing three sets of squats. Many more muscle groups worked, in the same amount of sets.

Quicker workouts. The entire body can be trained with four compound movements. (Example: Deadlifts, lunges, barbell rows, incline bench press).

Studies show that for optimal muscle growth, you need to train a muscle at least twice a week. Check out this blog on the topic:

For Fat Loss: You’re doing a lot more work with the squats. Burning through a lot more calories. To lose fat: daily calories burned must be more than daily calories consumed. So compound movements help with this.

The more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism will be. You’ll build much more muscle when ya focus on compound movements. More muscle means quicker fat loss.

If your goal is fat loss, you’re doing yourself a disservice spending an entire training day focusing on a single muscle group.

Arm day is the last thing that’ll help ya get rid of flabby arms. Know what will? Focusing on training the largest muscle groups, and in turn building a faster metabolism.

Now, don’t let the above convince ya isolation exercises are worthless. They’re actually super beneficial, and should be included in your training program.

The mistake most people make is prioritizing isolation exercises over compound exercises.

Isolation exercises are great for mind-muscle connection. Being able to “feel” the muscle you want working. Pre-exhaust techniques with machines are solid for this. Wanna feel your glutes more in your squat? Bust out 20 glute bridges immediately before squatting. Your booty will be lit.

On the same note, I like to use isolation exercises to activate specific muscle groups before my compound lifts.

Example: The muscles of the upper back are extremely important to keeping the shoulders injury free. Before any type of pressing, I go through the following routine I picked up from Cody “Boom Boom” McBroom ( to activate my upper back musculature.

A1) Straight arm pull down 2×10

A2) Cable row 2×10

A3) Facepulls 2×10

Isolation exercises are a great way to add more work to muscle groups you want to focus on. You get a lot out of compound exercises, but they’re taxing on your body. Do to many, and ya want be able to recover.

Say ya want to build your shoulders. You do 4 sets of barbell overhead presses + 3 sets of dumbbell overhead press + 3 sets of heavy Arnold Presses. Too much. Keep this up and you’re on your way to a shoulder injury

But if ya did: 4 sets of barbell overhead presses + 3 sets of lateral raises + 3 sets of facepulls, you’re golden. You’ll be able to recover, and the extra isolation work will speed up your shoulder gains.

Are your goals are any combination of: look better, feel better, move better, build muscle, lose body fat? You should prioritizing compound movements.

Start your workouts with 3 to 4 compound movements. 3 to 5 sets. Focus on getting stronger in the 5 to 15 rep range. Rest 90 seconds to 3 minutes between sets.

After this, add in 2 to 4 isolation exercise. Focus these on weakness, lagging muscle groups, or whatever you want to build more. 2 to 4 sets. 10 to 20 reps. Focus on “feeling the burn” in the desired muscle group. 30 to 60 seconds rest.

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